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A healthy diet is always important to maintain throughout your life, but it’s never more important than when you’re expecting a child. While you are pregnant, you’ll be spending an extended period of time taking care of a developing baby as well as yourself. Anything you put in your body can affect your baby’s development.

Think about the foods you consume. If you become pregnant, how do you know if you should continue eating your usual meals? It’s not just important to avoid certain foods, too. You’ll also need to keep in mind what you should be eating to nourish your growing baby.

Many pregnant women go through this dilemma without learning the facts. This guide is here to help you plan ahead and determine what is safe to eat, what is not, and how your baby could be affected by the food you consume.

What not to have…

It wasn’t long ago that doctors found moderate levels of drinking during pregnancy to be acceptable. We now know just how wrong this is. Alcohol is an extremely dangerous substance to allow a developing baby to be exposed to. The risks involved are severe, ranging from physical birth defects to mental developmental issues, and even death. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) and fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) are two common outcomes of alcohol-affected pregnancies. Further, less common problems such as low birth weight and small stature can also arise as side effects of drinking during pregnancy. These can occur even if FAS does not.

The threshold for developmental damage due to alcohol during pregnancy, if there is one, is uncertain. Doctors everywhere agree it is better to avoid alcohol altogether as the risks are too great to consider otherwise. If you were not expecting to become pregnant and/or unknowingly consumed alcohol early on during your pregnancy, your baby may still be unaffected. It is important to refrain from drinking as soon as you learn of your pregnancy. You can also decrease your baby’s risk of developmental harm by meeting a daily requirement of 400 micrograms of folic acid, which can be found in vitamins and supplements or in many foods such as leafy vegetables and baked goods containing flour.

It is still up for debate whether artificial sweetener is unsafe to consume during pregnancies. However, the one that draws the most concern from doctors is saccharin. Studies have shown that saccharin can cross the placenta and find its way into a fetus’s bloodstream. In combination with another study linking high amounts of saccharin to bladder cancer, some doctors conclude that exposing a developing baby to too much saccharin is a serious health risk. Saccharin is especially dangerous to fetuses, as research evidence suggests they are much less effective at clearing saccharin from the blood than adults.

In theory, continued consumption of saccharin can build up to dangerous levels for your unborn child. The safest way to handle your saccharin intake is to avoid it altogether. If you were unaware of the dangers of saccharin and have consumed some during your pregnancy already, the risk of damage should be low as long as you stop immediately. As for other artificial sweeteners, there is little to no scientific evidence to suggest they can cause harm to your baby.

What to avoid…

Mercury-Contaminated Seafood
Fish is an extremely healthy food for both the mother and the fetus. Fish carry a variety of vitamins and protein that can help a developing child grow and offer great nutritional benefits to mom’s, as well. However, one can’t forget the risk of mercury contamination discovered in some seafood. High levels of mercury can harm the nervous system of your child. In 2004, the FDA and EPA put out warnings to pregnant women to avoid all seafood high in mercury. These specific types of seafood that are risky to consume are generally larger ones that live longer than other fish, such as shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish.

Those that are less likely to contain high levels of mercury include shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollack, and catfish. These are considered safe up to 12 ounces per week. Expectant mothers may also want to limit albacore and tuna steaks to six ounces per week, as these often contain more mercury than canned light tuna. Furthermore, it is considered unsafe to eat raw fish (sushi) of any type during pregnancy, as they can contain bacteria and parasites that can be extremely harmful during pregnancy.

Caffeine is a common ingredient in many beverages, including sodas, coffee, and tea. Despite its widespread consumption, caffeine is actually a psychoactive drug that may be harmful to developing children in large doses. There is little specific evidence to suggest exactly how caffeine can be detrimental to an unborn baby, but many doctors conclude that there is a link between high doses of caffeine and an increased risk of miscarriage or low birth weight. Aside from this risk, caffeine is both a stimulant and a diuretic, neither of which are ideal for a mother to consume during pregnancy. It’s best to avoid caffeine altogether, but at the very least, pregnant women should limit their consumption to 300 mg daily, which is about the equivalent of three cups of coffee.

Unpasteurized Meat and Cheese
Meats and cheeses are known to be a very significant source of protein, which is great for developing babies. However, the problem with these is a bacterium called Listeria monocytogenes. This bacteria causes a particularly dangerous form of food poisoning that can increase the risk of miscarriage, premature birth, or stillbirth. A newborn baby exposed to Listeria is extremely susceptible to illness. Listeria can be found in foods that are unpasteurized, specifically in soft cheeses like feta, Brie, Camambert, Roquefort, blue-veined, queso blanco, queso fresco, and Panela. Unpasteurized fruit juices carry the same risk, as do luncheon meats, like hotdogs, ham, turkey, salami, and bologna. Pasteurization is a process that kills bacteria like Listeria, so any cheeses that are labeled as pasteurized should be safe to eat. Lunch and deli meats can be made safer for consumption through boiling in water or heated until steaming. This generally kills the harmful bacteria.

What to eat…

All-Bran Cereal With Extra Fiber
Certain cereals are surprisingly healthy for pregnant women. In a recent study, doctors found that 24 grams of fiber per day reduces the risks of developing preeclampsia (high blood pressure) by 51%. Fiber also helps reduce constipation and avoid hemorrhoids. High-fiber cereals are also usually rich in folic acid, which can help prevent birth defects.

Orange Juice
Orange juice is very good for cutting your blood pressure. Experts say that two cups a day can bring your blood pressure down by ten points. It’s also full of vitamin C, which is also good for reducing your risk of preeclampsia. Some brands of orange juice have the added benefit of calcium, a nutritional plus for pregnant women.

Banana Strawberry Smoothie
Bananas and strawberries are full of vitamin C, which, as stated before, is great at reducing your risk for preeclampsia. Yogurt and milk, on the other hand, contain a large amount of protein and calcium, which is good for controlling fluid retention, further reducing your risk of high blood pressure. Yogurt is also known to help reduce muscle cramping. Why not mix them together for a deliciously healthy beverage? Simply put strawberries, bananas, low-fat milk or yogurt, and some ice in a high-speed blender, mix until smooth and creamy, and enjoy.

Salmon is a great source of protein and vitamins that are great for a growing baby and a pregnant mother. Two studies in particular have shown just how beneficial salmon can be. One study showed that eating just six ounces of salmon per week reduced the risk of premature birth from 7.1% to 1.9%! A second study found that mothers who consume fatty acids found in fish during their last trimester have healthier sleep patterns. The fatty acid responsible for this is known as DHA, which is especially abundant in cold-water fish like salmon. As long as you restrict your consumption of it to 12 ounces per week to avoid mercury poisoning, salmon can be one of the most important additions to your diet during your pregnancy.